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The Struggle for Transformation

Journey of Repentance: the Anglican Church of Canada’s struggle for transformation

This is a story about the “dark side” of the missionary endeavour, of the consequences of cultural arrogance, of how succeeding generations are struggling to address the “sins of the parents”. This is a story of the Anglican Church of Canada’s journey of repentance.

In Canada during the colonial period (pre-1867) and well into the twentieth century, colonisers from Europe moved across the country from east to west, seizing land, settling farmsteads, bringing their own notions of government, law and order, as well as their own interpretation of Christianity.  The original inhabitants, or First Nations of the land were killed, displaced, converted.  New-comers and original inhabitants did not understand one another, but it soon became clear to the indigenous people that the new-comers were stronger and they intended to stay permanently.  As in other parts of the colonised world, these new-comers from Europe believed their culture to be superior, progressive and “civilised”, while the ways of the indigenous inhabitants were termed pre-civilised at best, or more often barbaric and savage. 

Throughout most of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the articulated goal of the federal government of Canada, the churches, most non-indigenous Canadians, and even some indigenous First Nations was that of assimilation.  The belief was that the way forward for indigenous people was to learn the languages and cultures of the colonisers (French and English), to be trained for jobs and gradually to be absorbed, with their own indigenous ways of life disappearing over time. The main vehicle for implementing this policy of assimilation was residential schools.  It was thought that the quickest route to ‘civilising’ and ‘converting’ the indigenous population was to remove indigenous children from their homes and communities, to place them in residential schools, to forbid them to speak their mother tongue, to condemn their cultures as barbaric and their spirituality as heathen.  The early missionaries had a strong commitment to basic education which they believed was essential to the survival and advancement of indigenous children.  So with the best of intentions towards the indigenous people, they started the first schools.  By the end of the nineteenth century, a partnership had developed between the government and the churches, with the government providing the bulk of the funds and the churches operating the schools on behalf of the government.  In the case of the Anglican Church, the schools were run by the Missionary Society of the Church in Canada (MSCC).   

Between 1820 and 1969, the Anglican Church of Canada administered 26 Indian Residential Schools, the Roman Catholics administered over 60 schools and other churches approximately 15.

By the 1960s in Canada, there was growing unease in all the churches about the residential schools, both their practices, and the basic philosophy underlying their existence. The Anglican Church commissioned Charles Hendry to undertake a major study of the relationships between the church and aboriginal peoples, and his report, Beyond Traplines, received by the General Synod of 1969, resulted in a significant shift in church policy.  At that time the church withdrew from the residential schools project and committed itself to trying to build a new, improved and more just relationship with its indigenous members, as well as advocating on behalf of the indigenous population at large.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Anglican Church worked slowly but surely to improve the position of its indigenous members through hiring a Co-ordinator for Native Ministries in the National Office, and putting in place a national Council for Native Ministries to oversee and give direction to the work.  In its justice work, the church began to advocate on behalf of indigenous peoples, and supported their struggles with the government for settlement of their many land claims.  When the Federal Government established a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Anglican Church prepared and presented a brief outlining its own participation in the government policy of assimilation through its partnership with the government in the residential schools system.

In 1993, at the Second Native Convocation of Indigenous Anglicans which took place at Minaki Lodge in Ontario, Archbishop Michael Peers issued an apology on behalf of the whole church for the harm done by the residential schools system.  Here is an excerpt from that apology:

I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools.  We failed you.  We failed ourselves.  We failed God. I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.  I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.  I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.  On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I offer our apology

This apology is a public acknowledgement of the sin of racism and ethnic superiority.   This sin was and is perpetrated against indigenous people in Canada.   It is a sin also against the Creator in whose image we are all made.  The missionary movement in general has frequently, though not always, been guilty of this sin.  But racism/ethnic superiority is also one of the underlying causes of the failure of many of our current attempts throughout the Anglican Communion to establish partnership relationships based on respect, mutual responsibility and interdependence. While this apology has been graciously accepted by indigenous Anglicans, there are many indigenous people who have left the church in anger and are either unaware of this apology, or have rejected it.

The current plight of indigenous people in Canadian society at the end of this twentieth century is a national disgrace.  The rates of crime, family violence, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment and incarceration are way above the national average.  Many communities and families are dysfunctional  their people in despair and crying out for help.  While the roots of today’s problems may be the historical policy of assimilation implemented through the residential schools system, the crisis is very much a present crisis of today.  The churches and the government have been too slow to respond, and in their frustration, many indigenous people are choosing litigation in their search for justice and reparation.  This is proving to be a very painful process for all parties, both plaintiffs and defendants, and does not lead to reconciliation.  It is also proving to be very expensive.  All parties are now aware that alternatives to litigation are needed. Alternative approaches include “truth-telling” and “truth-receiving”, formal and personalised apologies, compensation/reparation, and memorialisation of peoples’ experiences. These approaches are difficult but necessary steps in beginning to make amends for a shameful past. The churches, in obedience to the Gospel, are particularly concerned to work towards healing and reconciliation.  The Anglican Church, for its part, established a Healing and Reconciliation Fund in 1993 and has increased the staffing to work at this long-term task.  The government has recently followed suit with its own Aboriginal Healing Foundation.   It remains to be seen whether these measures will be successful.   

In 1994, during the Anglican Church of Canada’s Fourth PIM Consultation, a group of indigenous Anglicans articulated their vision of a new Covenant relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous members of the church.  Here is an excerpt from the Covenant statement:

We acknowledge that God is calling us to a prayerful dialogue towards self-determination for us, the Indigenous People, within the Anglican Communion in Canada.  Through this new relationship we can better respond to the challenges facing us in a relevant and meaningful way.

As faithful people of God, guided by the Holy Spirit, we invite you, the Anglican Communion of Canada to covenant with us, the Indigenous Anglicans of Canada, in our vision of a new and enriched journey.

Under the guidance of God’s spirit we agree to do all we can to call our people into unity in a new, self-determining community within the Anglican Church of Canada.  To this end, we extend the hand of partnership to all those who will help us build a truly Anglican Indigenous Church in Canada. May God bless this new vision and give us grace to accomplish it.  Amen.

This vision is of unity, community and self-determination, to be achieved within the church not through separation.  Given not only the historical record, but also the ongoing plight of indigenous people in Canadian society, it is astonishing that, by the grace of God, there are still indigenous people who want to remain in the church, and further, that they are graciously offering a hand of partnership to the rest of the church so that all may journey together to healing and wholeness.  The realisation of this vision will require changes to existing structures and practices.  While the Covenant has been affirmed by the whole church at the General Synod level, there continues to be lack of understanding and acceptance in some dioceses and parishes where change needs to happen.  The question remains as to whether the dominant non-indigenous church can relinquish power and control while continuing to walk in partnership, offering financial support and being open to learn from the indigenous minority church.

This case-study in cross-cultural mission is a sobering one.  The sin of racism/ethnic superiority, coupled with the confusion of gospel and culture, has had devastating effects on the many and varied First Nations in Canada.  “The sins of the parents are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation”, and the Anglican Church of Canada is currently reaping the fruits of those sins.  Mission is indeed about proclaiming the Good News of God’s love through Jesus Christ, but it is also about affirming that all of humankind is created in God’s image, with no group having the right to re-create others according to its own limited vision. So where the missionary project has a shameful and arrogant history, mission today must be about humility, repentance, justice and reparation.  In the Anglican Church of Canada, we are on a journey towards reconciliation. It is going to be a long and difficult journey, but with God’s grace, we will journey in partnership, indigenous and non-indigenous Anglicans together, and as a church, as the People of God, we may eventually achieve reconciliation and be transformed in the process.

Reflections from a South African perspective

The South African story can offer some helpful suggestions to the Canadian situation.  In post-apartheid South Africa, the government set up a Truth & Reconciliation Commission as a means of bringing to light the truth and enabling people to put their stories behind them and move forward into a brighter future.  The key elements in this process were the telling of individual stories, the listening to and honouring those experiences, the acknowledgement of wrongdoing and apology, and finally, the acceptance of apology and a willingness to move forward.

While the process is by no means finished, nonetheless it is clear that it has been very helpful to very many people to have had opportunity to tell their stories and to have had those stories heard and recorded.  The importance of public apology cannot be overstated.  The question of reparation is not easily resolved, especially where the government’s resources are limited.  Also, it is not clear what will be the next steps in cases where amnesty has not been granted.

The Anglican Church of Canada might be helped in its journey towards reconciliation by inviting partners, including those from the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, to share their own experiences and learnings.  It may also wish to share this painful journey with other parts of the Communion so that as we go forward in mission we may avoid repeating the errors of the past.

Reflections from a Zimbabwean perspective

Land dispossession in post-colonial countries in the Anglican Communion remains a sensitive and volatile issue affecting the church and its mission.  It is a justice issue of major proportions.

The war of liberation in Zimbabwe was mainly about land dispossession affecting the black majority of the country.  The church (missionary church) was an accomplice in the process of dispossession.  Cecil Rhodes who occupied the country, (which was later named after him - Rhodesia), found it convenient to dispossess Africans, and gave tracts of land to missionaries in order that they could establish mission stations.  Forceful eviction of Africans was used to create room for mission farms.  Unlike the Church in the Province of Southern Africa, the Church in Zimbabwe has remained silent on the issue and thus failed to fulfil its Christian responsibility to thousands of rural peasants who are barely surviving on arid land.  Most of the mission farms are surrounded by landless rural folk.  The situation has been made worse by new land dispossessors in the persons of black elite who have now joined settler farmers in denying the majority of the Africans access to land for their livelihood.

The church has a mission to preach justice if it is to be credible. (Amos 3:5, Luke 4).

Reflections from an Australian perspective

The dispossession of Aboriginal and islander peoples of their traditional lands, coupled with the policy of assimilation involving the removal of children from their families, has resulted in a desperate need for a process of reconciliation.  One issue has become a powerful and emotional one in the reconciliation debate.  It is the issue of an apology.

At the 1997 National Reconciliation Convention, Prime Minister John Howard, offered indigenous Australians a personal but not a national apology for the wrongs done to them.  The nearly 2000 delegates responded will this resolution.

“We note that leaders across the social spectrum expressed their own personal apologies and sorrow for the treatment of indigenous peoples; this was itself an historic moment.  We call on all parliaments, local governments, organisations and institutions to follow this lead with their own form of apology so that we can all move forward together to share responsibility for the future of this nation.”

Since then, at the grass roots, many initiatives have been taken including “Sorry books” in which millions of white Australians have recorded their apologies.  The churches, not least the Anglican Church in Australia, have provided materials and leadership for rational discussion and debate.  The Church is supporting Governor General Sir William Deane who said: “The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future.  It stays to shape what we are and what we do”.  Australians need reminding that they may be individually blameless for past wrongs, but must share responsibility for their outcome in present injustice. The fourth of the Five Marks of Mission (ACC, 1984 & 1990) needs emphasis in Australia as in Canada.

Questions for reflection and Discussion

  1. Has the church in your province (diocese, parish) any historical sins of which it needs to repent?  If so, how is it addressing this legacy?
  2. This case study states that repentance, apology, justice and reparation must precede reconciliation.   Do you think each of these steps is necessary, and if so, why?